Wednesday, August 13, 2014

ULA board replaces founding CEO Michael Gass

     United Launch Alliance (ULA ) announced on Tuesday, Aug. 12 that the company’s founding CEO and president, Michael Gass, will be replaced effective immediately, based on a decision made by the executive board members of ULA.

     Gass will be replaced by Tory Bruno, an executive from Lockheed Martin, who himself is a veteran from the aerospace industry.
No official reason was mentioned by ULA regarding the change in leadership for this top-level position. Recent negative publicity aimed towards ULA, by rival aerospace firm Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ), over ethical conflicts and no-bid contracts for government satellite launches, may have played a role in this restructuring.

     ULA was founded in 2006 as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company, focused on providing launch services for the U.S. government. This consolidated rocket company has since grown to become the largest launch service providers for U.S. defense programs.

     SpaceX filed a lawsuit in April, against the ULA and the U.S. Air Force by claiming the single-source contracts awarded to ULA for high-profile U.S. military launches are over-priced and involve ethical conflicts.

     Most of the controversy surrounded the so-called “block buy” of 35 launch vehicle booster cores for the U.S. Air Force worth an estimated $11 billion. SpaceX claimed in their lawsuit that they could launch the satellites cheaper if allowed to compete, and a U.S. federal judge recently upheld SpaceX’s demand for more details surrounding ULA’s price structure for the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV ) program.

     Political tensions between the United States and Russia have also played a factor in increasing recent negative publicity for ULA. This involved claims by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, that they will no longer provide RD-180 rocket engines to American companies for use on Department of Defense flights.

     Moreover, Rogozin stated that Russia would cease its participation on the ISS project in 2020 and would shut down GPS sites located in Russia.

     The RD-180 engine is considered essential to the prolonged availability of the Atlas V family of launch vehicles. Given that this is the primary engine of Atlas’ booster core – this decision could adversely impact national security on a long term basis if supplies are cut off.
For their part, ULA has stated that it has a store of the engines on hand as well as the designs from which to make more. These statements were made by Gass during a March hearing held in front of Congress.

     ULA has continued to defend their reliability and reassure the public and government contractors that they will continue to provide all the resources necessary to fulfill all of their contracted launches in the future.

     “Mike’s track record speaks for itself: 86 successful launches in a row, including many of our nation’s most complex and critical space missions,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and a ULA board member in a statement released by ULA. “Tory is an ideal leader to take the reins at ULA. He’ll bring the same unwavering commitment to mission success that has been ULA’s hallmark, and will apply his proven track record of driving customer focus, innovation and affordability to shape ULA’s future.”

     Before his scheduled departure in December, Gass will work with his replacement Bruno; “to ensure a smooth leadership transition and continued commitment to mission success,” claims ULA.

     “We’re grateful for Mike’s leadership and contribution to ULA’s customers and employees, as well as the space industry as a whole,” said Craig Cooning, president of Boeing Network and Space Systems and a ULA board member in a statement released by ULA. “Tory understands the launch business as well as anyone and is well-qualified to ensure ULA keeps pace with changing customer needs and launch industry dynamics.”

By James Tutten

(Photo credit: Rob Curtis/Space News)

(Published at on Aug. 13, 2014.)

Monday, August 11, 2014

SpaceX to begin launch abort tests in Florida

     Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) will attempt another developmental milestone for their human-rated Dragon Spacecraft V2 by testing the vehicle’s launch escape system. The success of this launch abort system is vital to ensure the lives and safety of astronauts that could potentially ride Dragon V2 into low-Earth orbit (LEO), and further SpaceX in their pursuit of a multibillion-dollar NASA contract.

     Based on an original report by Dan Leone for Space News, SpaceX has two planned launch escape system tests, including a pad abort test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida this November, and an in-flight abort test from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in January of 2015. This announcement was reportedly made at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2014 conference on Aug. 6 by Garrett Reisman, a program manager for the SpaceX Dragon Rider.

     Eight SuperDraco engines will be used for Dragon V2’s launch escape system and are designed to provide several unique capabilities when working together. Each engine will produce 16,000 pounds of thrust and have the ability to be restarted several times if necessary. Not only will the SuperDraco engines have launch abort capabilities on the ground and in-flight, but will also serve as an advanced vehicle control thruster, which SpaceX plans to use for precise guided ground landings.

     The SuperDraco thrusters passed their qualification testing right before SpaceX unveiled their new Dragon V2 Spacecraft on May, 29. The engine chamber and other components for this rocket engine are produced in-house by SpaceX using revolutionary 3D printing technologies, designed to lower costs and help increase manufacturing speeds.

     “Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Elon Musk, Chief Designer and CEO in a statement released by SpaceX before the Dragon V2’s debut. “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”

     Both of the upcoming tests of the launch escape system will demonstrate the ability of the SuperDraco engines to be used at any time before and after launch. The November test in Florida will use a V2 mockup to simulate a pad abort test, and in-flight abort test will be conducted in January, though no official word or detailed information has been released by SpaceX.

     What is known for sure is the importance of this test to prove the launch abort system for the Dragon V2 as a requirement for NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative. Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft and Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser spacecraft are also in direct competition with SpaceX’s Dragon to complete several complex developmental milestones, that will inevitably lead to one or more companies being selected by NASA to launch manned missions to the International Space Station (ISS) by December 2017.

     SpaceX already has three planned launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for the remainder of this year. AsiaSat 6 has a planned launch on Aug. 26, just 21 days after their latest launch of AsiaSat 8 on Aug 5. Their CRS-4 mission to the ISS for NASA will take place on Sep. 12, and provide a replacement set of batteries to make repairs for the ISS, in addition to other supplies and scientific experiments. And two months after CRS-4 on Nov. 26, SpaceX hopes to fly Dragon to the ISS again for their CRS-5 mission for NASA.

     Unless rescheduling is needed or other setbacks occur, expect SpaceX to continue to stay in the headlines, as this ambitious private spaceflight company continues to increase their presence in Earth’s orbit.

By James Tutten

(Photo credit: Robert C. Fisher/Spaceflight Insider)

(Published at on Aug. 11, 2014.)

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